Today, when Roger walks into Bridgewater’s living room, Bridgewater decides they won’t talk about Elizabeth. Roger wears his usual: a tentish Hawaiian shirt, faded Levi’s, and one-dollar flip-flops. He hands Bridgewater the bag of food from the taco stand. “You know,” he says, “as I was swimming my laps today, I figured out that I’d have to swim like six and a half miles to work off one chimichanga.”
“Maybe this daily ritual of beer and fatty food should end,” Bridgewater says, as he pokes his steaming chimichanga with a plastic forkcarne seca and guacamole.
“Tomorrow I’ll bring salad and spring water.” Roger pulls up his shirt, rubs his rounded, woolly stomach. “Beer’s bad for your problem, anyway.”
“I no longer have that problem,” Bridgewater says. “I never had a problem. The doctor said it wasn’t a problem. Shut up.”
Roger sits down next to Bridgewater and grabs the remote from the coffee table. He flips through channels until he finds a cooking show. A man with a pointed goatee flips crepes. Bridgewater can smell the chlorine from the lap pool on Roger.
“I‘ve never had this problem before,” Bridgewater told Elizabeth the first time it didn’t happen. He lifted the sheet and looked at it. Lifeless. Like a dead thing, a butcher’s scrap.
“I’ve never had this problem, either,” Elizabeth said. She sat up. “But it’s not a problemreally.”
“Maybe it’s report-card stress,” Bridgewater said, hopefully.
She blew her hair out of her face. “Maybe.”
The fourth time it didn’t happen, a few months later, Elizabeth said she was glad, and began to kiss Bridgewater’s ear.
“You’re what?” he said, turning so she could no longer kiss him.
“You seem to like it when it works.”
“We could just lie here and kiss all afternoon. We could take a cool bath.” She leaned over to kiss him again.
Bridgewater dodged her, rolled out of bed and stepped into his boxers. “I don’t get it. It works three times in a row. It fails. It works seven more times. It fails. It works six more times, and now it’s useless again. I’m going to the doctor.”
“You’re such a baby,” Elizabeth said. She too rolled out of bed. She pulled on a Red Sox T-shirt.
“I’m only thirty-one. This shouldn’t happen.”
“I’m sick of this topic.”
“I even put my breakfast in the blenderSpecial K.” Bridgewater began to tuck the sheet corners under the mattress.
“Blood rushes to your stomach to help the churning process, so I figured I’d do some digesting before I ate so there’d be plenty of blood to rush to other parts.”
“Are you high?”
After swallowing the last few drops of his fifth beer and belching, Roger declares Bridgewater’s living room a farting lounge and sputters a loud one.
Bridgewater has only finished two beers. The Mexican food left a burn that creeps up his throat.
“Call me Virgil,” Roger says with a hick accent.
“Not now.” Bridgewater doesn’t feel like abiding Roger’s perverted hillbilly routine today.
“You got a problem, Purdy Mouth?”
“Your fart stinks.” Bridgewater fans a TV Guide in front of his face, breathes through his mouth.
“I seen you ’round these parts, Purdy Mouth.”
“What the hell did you eat, anyway?”
“Time for Purdy Mouth to dance. Real slowbut get faster.” Roger wrings his hands, leaves his mouth open, curls his upper lip. He stares at Bridgewater. He winks.
Bridgewater ignores Roger, and clicks off the loud TV. When Virgil, the lonely backwoods lecher, or Sergeant Surplus, the purveyor of stolen government-issued sex toys, appears, it’s time for Roger to stop drinking, it’s time to distract him. “Let’s go somewhere,” Bridgewater says. “Let’s sit in the pool for a while. It’s never crowded at this time.”
“I dint bring no swim panty, Purdy Mouth,” Roger says.
“Are you too fat now to borrow my shorts?” Bridgewater stands, begins to clear the empty bottles and Mexican food mess from the coffee table.
“Help me up, Panty Man,” Roger says, extending his hand.
Bridgewater places the bottles back on the table and grabs Roger’s callused hand. Roger jerks Bridgewater down to him and kisses him: a dental clank, abrasive whiskers, soft lips, warm, wet tongue.
Bridgewater shoves Roger and stumbles to the side before he regains his footing. He wipes his mouth across his forearm. “Get the fuck out!” he yells.
“It was a joke,” Roger says.
“Leave,” Bridgewater mumbles, unable to say anything else for fear he may vomit.
“I‘m sick of you and your obsession,” Elizabeth told Bridgewater as they sat at his kitchen table after a Cinco de Mayo street party. “And it’s too hot here already.” Each was crabby because of a parking fiasco on Fourth Avenue that resulted in Elizabeth getting a sixty-five-dollar ticket.
Bridgewater pretended to focus on the physics test he was grading. He whispered meaningless strings of numbers and then looked at Elizabeth as unemotionally as possible. “Where will you live?”
“In Somerville. With Stan.”
“That geek with the important artist eyeglasses? The one in the pictures?”
Elizabeth found a visiting grad student to sublet her little house, and left for Boston two days after final grades were turned in. As Bridgewater kissed her good-bye at the airport, as he hid himself in her hair, he couldn’t believe she’d really be gone for ten weeks, seventy days.
He told himself that he’d keep busy, that he wouldn’t have time to miss Elizabeth, but he found himself playing with the cauterizer and drinking beer with Roger more days than not.
The kiss might have just been part of the Virgil routineand Roger’s drunk, so he shouldn’t let him drive off in his truck. He imagines Roger swerving down Campbell Avenue, getting pulled over by a cold-faced cop, being asked to recite the alphabet backwards.
Bridgewater is left with a nervous twist in his stomachthe same feeling he experienced just a few weeks ago when he witnessed an old woman topple several steps down an escalator in the nearly deserted Tucson Mall. Her blood looked purple gurgling from her lips. The paramedics, which took way too long to arrive, left her dentures right there on the tiled floor next to a fountain. Bridgewater took refuge in Banana Republic, clutched his gut while he sat hunched on a plump ottoman in the women’s shoe area. A clerk, whose hair was sculpted into a pointed ramp, eventually told Bridgewater to “move along.”
Now, as he hears Roger revving his truck outside, he feels the same sickening knot.
A few hours and several Extra Strength Rolaids later, Bridgewater paces across his patio, kicking dried mesquite beans into the dirt. The sun begins to sink towards the jagged mountains, smearing the sky with orange and purple flares. Bridgewater knows he should be moved by the splendor, but he can’t be; his nervous stomach won’t let him, and Roger’s kiss still holds an uncomfortable immediacy. He can hear Jersey on the other side of the fence again, giggling, babbling happily. He hopes Jersey was inside, that he hasn’t been playing in the dirt all day.
Bridgewater rips a large branch from the ravaged palo verde and sits down in the chaise. He begins to burn a phrase he once read on a desk in his classroomSOME MORNINGS I CAN’T BRING MYSELF TO CHEW THROUGH THE LEATHER STRAPSbut only finishes SOME MOR when he hears strange, labored wheezing from over the fence.
Jersey’s on his hands and knees. Twinkle stands beside him, calmly licking his back. When Jersey rolls over, Bridgewater can see that his face is red, purple almost.
“Hey!” Bridgewater yells towards Jersey’s house. “Hey, your baby is choking! Hey!”
He yells again, but the only one who notices is Twinkle. She looks up from Jersey and growls at Bridgewater, lifting her thin black lip to reveal crisscrossed incisors.
Bridgewater grabs the partially-burned palo verde branch and jumps the wall. As soon as Bridgewater’s feet hit the dust next to Jersey, Twinkle clamps onto his ankle and begins to tug. He feels each of her teeththey burn into him. He beats her with the thick branch, every strike a futile hollow thump. The dog pulls him away from the choking toddler, causes him to stumble. From his position on his butt, he rams the end of the branch into Twinkle’s forehead. She whimpers and released his leg. He feels the warmth of blood soaking through his sock as he stands and staggers over to Jersey.
The baby feels slack and warm, but still wheezes as Bridgewater scoops him up by the waist. Jersey hangs over Bridgewater’s elbow, his chubby little arms loosely dangling like a puppet’s. Twinkle’s back at Bridgewater’s ankle, the same bleeding one, pulling and gnawing. Before he falls again, Bridgewater squeezes Jersey’s abdomen. Out pops a slimy rock, the size of a peach pit. The gasping toddler squirms from his grasp and rolls off the top of the dog before thudding on the dirt.
Bridgewater falls, too, and as Twinkle drags him through the yard by his mangled ankle, he desperately grabs the palo verde branch and smacks her head again. She releases his leg after he pokes her eye, after he mashes the end of the stick a few inches into the socket, hard enough to make it bleed. Twinkle lies down and paws her eye, whimpers. Bridgewater stands on his good leg, again uses the branch to beat Twinkle.
He doesn’t hear Jersey’s wailing or Twinkle’s yelps of pain. He doesn’t hear Jersey’s mother’s screams or Jersey’s father’s what the hells.
He finally stops beating Twinkle when Jersey’s mother turns the hose on him.
With the spray in his face, the droplets making a rainbow in the last rays of sun, Bridgewater calmly says, “I saved your baby. I did. Me.”